Season opening 2017: Simon Rattle conducts Haydn’s “Creation”

25 Aug 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Elsa Dreisig, Mark Padmore, Florian Boesch

  • Georg Friedrich Haas
    ein kleines symphonisches Gedicht – für Wolfgang, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation Première (8 min.)

  • Joseph Haydn
    The Creation Hob. XXI:2 (106 min.)

    Elsa Dreisig soprano, Mark Padmore tenor, Florian Boesch baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on Haydn’s “Creation” (10 min.)

  • free

    Mark Padmore in conversation with Stanley Dodds (13 min.)

The premiere of The Creation, conducted by Haydn before an invited audience at the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna on 30 April 1798, set off a chain of events such as the city had never experienced. The triumphant success of the premiere was followed by two more performances on 7 and 10 May. Almost a year later, on 19 March 1799, the first public performance of the work took place in the presence of the emperor at the Burgtheater. Haydn had playbills printed for the occasion on which he announced that none of the pieces would be repeated following applause, “otherwise the exact connection between the several parts, from whose uninterrupted sequence the effect of the whole is intended to spring, must necessarily be destroyed, and, moreover, the pleasure considerable lessened”. The impact was tremendous. The audience gave their full attention to the music and expressed its enthusiasm with thunderous applause only at the interval and at the end of the concert. Following publication of the score, the work spread like wildfire throughout Europe and was performed in Budapest, Prague, London, Oxford, Salzburg, Paris, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg and Moscow. In November 1801, the Journal des Luxus und der Moden stated: “Never has a musical artwork caused such a sensation or found such a wide audience as Haydn’s Creation”.

To open the new season, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker now perform this epic work, which takes chaos as its starting point, represented “by the ordinary, methodical, conventional resources of Art” (Carl Friedrich Zelter). The creation of the world follows in a series of picturesque descriptions of nature, including the famous sunrise in the accompanied recitative “In splendour bright”, in which within ten bars, a single note swells to a radiant D major chord of the full orchestra – a grandiose effect that has lost none of its impact. The excellent Rundfunkchor Berlin will also doubtlessly present itself “in splendour bright” as well as the trio of soloists: The tenor role is sung by Mark Padmore, who also makes his debut as artist in residence for the 2017/18 season this evening, and who is known for his virtuoso vocal line and perfect diction. He is joined by Elsa Dreisig, a member of the ensemble of the Berlin Staatsoper as of this season, plus the baritone Florian Boesch. This first concert of the season begins with a symphonic “appetiser” by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, as part of the orchestra’s series of commissioned works of no more than six minutes duration. 

Rituals for Healing and Light

Haasʼs kleines symphonisches Gedicht and Haydn’s Creation

Dedication: ein kleines symphonisches Gedicht by Georg Friedrich Haas

“When my words fail I have to speak in music. I have tried to compose a ritual. A ritual for healing and light.” Georg Friedrich Haas made these remarks about the orchestral piece whose premiere opens the new season of the Berliner Philharmoniker. That this work should be performed for the first time directly before Joseph Haydn’s Creation inevitably lends it a certain context: “healing and light” are also central themes of Haydn’s oratorio – the universe’s primal chaos is healed in the order brought by light. The wandering sounds of the famous orchestral prelude to the Creation can conceivably be heard as a continuation of the Haas’s sonic textures (Klangflächen).

Haas, born in Graz, Austria, calls the orchestral movement ein kleines symphonisches Gedicht (a small symphonic poem) and has attached to it a dedication “to Wolfgang.” From its very beginning the score reveals a kind of ritualistic configuration of instruments. The first chord in the strings is layered from the bottom up: divided basses support triple-divided cellos and quadruple-divided violas beneath the two violin sections, each divided five times. All play minor seconds in lengthy, sustained sounds that add to the cluster whilst winds and brass ring out in triplets and quintuplets. The sound grows continually higher, louder and more intense until it transforms into ragged fortissimo chords. Underneath high violin and flute trills there develops a new, stratified sonic texture of fortissimo strings. This remains the dominant moment of the movement, at times being rhythmically structured, at times taking the form of long, sustained sounds from the strings. A small number of repeated notes punctuate it with rhythmic contrasts, in particular a “wild” triple-forte shortly before the conclusion. After six and a half minutes the musicians are instructed to “end as if the piece could go on and on indefinitely” – in a wild, defiant forte-fortissimo.

Between Enlightenment and Church Teaching: Joseph Haydn’s Creation

When Haydn’s Creation was heard for the first time on 30 April 1798 it was, quite literally, a hair-raising event: at the moment of “Und es ward Licht” (“And there was light”), the audience were so electrified by the sudden C-major fortissimo that they jumped from their seats and cheered. Twenty minutes went by before the performance could be continued. The score was published soon after in 1800 and the work was performed more or less simultaneously in twenty European cities. With his grand narrative of divine light bringing illumination to humanity Haydn unified Europeans on the eve of the Napoleonic wars.

English Roots

The roots of the Creation lie in England. When Haydn set foot on English soil on 1 January 1791 he was soon drawn into the maelstrom of George Frideric Handel’s oratorios. In Westminster Abbey he heard the Messiah and Israel in Egypt with hundreds of choristers and monumental orchestral forces. Amidst the atmosphere of the English Handel cult Haydn also soon came into contact with the material of the Creation. Between 1744 and 1746 Handel had been offered three different oratorio texts based on John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The first came from Handel’s friend Mary Delany and dealt exclusively with the Fall of Man, which clearly did not excite Handel. The second libretto was much more attractive, since it combined extracts from the scriptures with passages from Milton’s epic, just as the text of Haydn’s Creation was to. The librettist was Charles Jennens, who had also written the texts of the Messiah and Saul. Unfortunately, however, Handel and Jennens quarrelled in 1744 to such an extent that a setting of his text became out of the question. When Handel’s friend John Upton sent him a further libretto based on Paradise Lost two years later, the composer had lost all interest – a fortunate turn of events, since instead of our having a Handel oratorio named TheCreation, it fell to Haydn to compose Die Schöpfung using a German text. The most recent scholarship supposes that Haydn returned to Vienna with the libretto by Jennens. Gottfried van Swieten, for many years prefect of the Viennese Court Library, translated it into German. According to his own testimony, he “followed the original faithfully on the whole, but often departed from it in the details.”

Haydn at the Telescope

After Haydn had spent his second season in London he visited near Windsor the greatest scientific attraction in England at the time: the gigantic reflecting telescope belonging to the German musician and astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm (later William) Herschel. As Haydn wrote in his notebook, Herschel, owing to his financially advantageous marriage, possessed the means to construct sensational telescopes. With their help he had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, in addition to nebulae and many other celestial phenomena. When Haydn visited him on 15 June 1792 Herschel had just developed the theory that stars formed from a kind of gas cloud via the action of gravity. This idea, transposed into music, corresponds to the sound picture that Haydn invented for chaos: dissonant chords and nebulous rhythms that gradually come together into concrete forms.

The depiction of chaos at the beginning of the Creation was not Haydn’s own idea, but an express wish of Baron van Swieten, who in this way envisaged the whole oratorio under a single theme: the opposition between chaos and order, darkness and light. Only one year before the premiere of the Creation, in 1797, the fourth volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in Edinburgh in its famous third edition. There, chaos was defined in the following fashion: “CHAOS, that confusion in which matter lay when newly produced out of nothing before the beginning of the world, before God, by his almighty word, had put it into order and condition wherein it was after the first days of creation.”

In his oratorio Haydn represented the dispersal of all darkness by the first light: “Let there be light, and there was light.” The aria that follows develops the conceptual pairing of order and confusion further: the “holy beams” (“heilige Strahl”) of the first day cause the spirits of Hell to escape into the abyss. As sunrise will later, light stands here as a symbol for a just and orderly world in which every creature has its place: “During the last five days of the Creation God did nothing other than assign each creature the place allotted to it within the tableau of the universe. Until this time everything in nature had remained silent, stupid and numb. The scenery of the world only developed once the voice of the all-powerful Creator arranged creatures into the marvellous order that today accounts for its beauty.” This was the definition of Chaos by the anonymous author of the 1753 article on the subject in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, which moreover avoided calling into question the precedence of the biblical account of the Creation: “We add these corollaries: 1. That we ought not in any system of Physics contradict the fundamental truths of religion as Genesis teaches them.”

Haydn’s oratorio corresponds perfectly to this compromise between the Enlightenment and Church teaching. The natural growth and flourishing of creatures stands for the development of life in its full, autonomous beauty. The choir of angels, on the other hand, affirms at the end of each day the creator of all of this, singing the praises of God. Musically we could refer to these two aspects as “symphonic” and “sacred.” Where Haydn lovingly depicts God’s dramatic act of creation or the beauty of creatures he acts as a symphonist. Where he praises God alone he becomes a Church musician – the master of the late masses. Haydn’s own devout brother, Michael, who lived in Salzburg, admitted just as much: “What my brother brings off in his choruses on ‘Ewigkeit’ is quite extraordinary indeed!”

Karl Böhmer

Translation: Christopher Fenwick

Florian Boesch comes from a Viennese family of singers and received his first singing lessons from his grandmother Ruthilde Boesch. In 1997, he went to the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, where he graduated from the lieder and oratorio class of Robert Holl. The baritone began his international career in 2003 as Papageno at Zurich Opera. Particularly as a singer of lieder, Florian Boesch has been a coveted guest on the concert stages of international music capitals (Wiener Concert-Verein, Carnegie Hall New York, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Wigmore Hall London, Konzerthaus Dortmund, Kölner Philharmonie among others) and at major festivals such as the SWR Schwetzinger Festspiele, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Styriarte Festival Graz. Florian Boesch also enjoys success as a soloist with leading orchestras with a historical and stylistically multifaceted concert repertoire; he also performs roles in stage works by George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Alban Berg. Florian Boesch worked together with Nikolaus Harnoncourt on a regular basis. He has also worked with Iván Fischer, Sir Roger Norrington, Philippe Herreweghe, Sir Simon Rattle, Ivor Bolton, Franz Welser-Möst, Robin Ticciati, Gustavo Dudamel, Valery Gergiev, Adam Fischer and Paul McCreesh. Florian Boesch first appeared in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts as a soloist in Beethoven’s C major Mass at the end of October 2011 under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt; most recently, he appeared in three performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s musical drama Die glückliche Hand under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle in mid-September 2015.

Elsa Dreisig studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and at the University of Music & Theatre “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” Leipzig. Since then, the young soprano has made a name for herself with numerous awards and distinctions at singing competitions. In 2016, she won first prize as the best female singer at the “Operalia” World Opera Competition. In the same year, she was nominated young artist of the year by the magazine Opernwelt. In 2015, her awards included second prize at the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo, and first prize plus the audience prize at the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Neue Stimmen” competition. From 2015 to 2017, Elsa Dreisig was a member of the International Opera Studio of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Even while there, she was cast in major roles such as Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) and Euridice (Orfeo ed Euridice). Last season, the singer also made her debut at the Opéra de Paris (Pamina), at Zurich Opera (Musetta) and in July 2017 at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (Micaela in Carmen). From the start of the 2017/2018 season, Elsa Dreisig becomes a member of the ensemble of the Staatsoper in Berlin; today, she is making her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Mark Padmore first trained as a clarinetist before starting his vocal studies at King’s College in Cambridge in 1979. His close association with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants began in 1991, and with Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent in 1992. Mark Padmore soon gained global fame particularly for his roles as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist in Bach’s choral works. But from the 1990s, he also increasingly made a name for himself on the opera stage: he sang in Peter Brook’s production of Don Giovanni in Aix-en-Provence, made a guest appearance in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and was involved in performances of Handel’s Jephtha at English National Opera. He also took on the main roles in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Corridor and The Cure at the Aldeburgh Festival. Mark Padmore has performed with the Vienna and New York Philharmonic, the London and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam; he also regularly performs with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Britten Sinfonia. As a lieder singer, he works together with pianists such as Paul Lewis, Till Fellner, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Julius Drake and Roger Vignoles. In the 2016/2017 season, Mark Padmore played a significant role in the programme of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in Munich as its artist in residence. In concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, with whom the singer now holds the same position this season, he most recently appeared in Peter Sellars’s staged version of the St John Passion at the end of February/early March 2014, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Mark Padmore is artistic director of the St Endellion Summer Music Festival in Cornwall.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin (Berlin Radio Choir) is a regular guest at major festivals and the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound all contribute to making it one of the world’s outstanding choral ensembles. Its work is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001-2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as new principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 2017 in a concert performance of Puccini’s Tosca conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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